Ghost Town Agdam

November 2014

There was a document checkpoint at the entrance to the unrecognised republic. Arsen, a military man from Karabakh's town Shushi, came out to a border guard, giving me a signal to stay in the car and not to move. The captain told something about me or, rather, did not mention me at all because two days later it turned out to have been a positive harm. A fifty kilometres spiral road wrapped in a strong fog was a way to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.

заброшенный город

At midnight I was at a gas station where I made friends with the local employees. We ate Zhingialov Khats, local flatbread with 12 herbs. Armenian Gaggik told us how after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the 1991 his family left their household and fled from Azerbaijan. The guys made a bed for me out of sacks with wheat and installed a heater thus organizing a lodge for me for two nights.

"We Are Our Mountains" monument to centenarians of the region towered on a hill. The monument was the main signature sight of Artsakh that was another name for Karabakh. In the winter of 1991-1992, Stepanakert suffered severe destruction due to shell attacks and bombardments. Now the city was almost reconstructed: squares and parks decorated with sculptures burst into vegetation, a drama theatre and a museum opened. But one could spot constant combat readiness behind any instance of peaceful life: in school lessons about civil defence and special courses in the institute, in abundance of camouflage in the streets, even in an attentive look of a passer-by, who, perhaps, could be that military service man in civil clothes. Even the destinations of ordinary cars going inland were military units.

Some 30 kilometres away from Stepanakert, I saw a scenery reminiscent of an apocalypse film set – a huge ghost city. The once prosperous 50,000 population Azerbaijani town of Agdam, famous across the USSR for its port wine, became the Caucasian Hiroshima, a monument to the Karabakh war. That stroll along the dead streets was slightly creepy, but I had to see it with my own eyes. The ruins of rich pre-revolutionary mansions and Soviet-time structures were overgrown by thistle and feral pomegranate. A former theatre, a mosque, a recreation centre, a school, war-time trenches and ditches, hundreds of meters of barbed wire and rusted metal mesh, dust, boulders... The ruins stretched as far as I could see, up to the horizon.

That was not to say that absolutely nobody was there. For example, sheepherdsmen lived in huts on the outskirts of the town. Several blocks away from me, somebody picked up scrap metal and looted the deserted town for building materials. And finally, the destroyed town hosted a military base and its eastern borderline coincided with the front line with all distinctive consequences: mine fields, defence fortifications and anti-tank ditches. The latter fact became known to me after an unexpected appearance of a gunman. While he was approaching, I turned my back and replaced a memory card in my camera just in case – the Karabakh MFA prohibited foreigners not only to make pictures but even to stay in Agdam. The soldier warned me that armoured manoeuvres were to begin soon. They were going to close the road...

The worn-down roads through the Agdam's ruins were used mainly by the military. A military UAZ vehicle raised dust on a bumpy road next to an almost intact mosque. I did not try to stop it out of fear of potential hard questions. But the brakes squealed and a head in a peaked cap popped up from the window: "if you need to go Stepanakert or Shushi, we'll be there by night." It was not late yet. First of all, the two contract servicemen had to deliver mail to different military units scattered some good 100 kilometres from one another.

Not missing a single pothole, a single bump, we drove through Fizuli and Gadrut towns, Sarushen village and other communities of Karabakh. And again, I saw signs of the war through seemingly peaceful life: debris, derelict households, stillness, Azerbaijani lights on the other side of the front line. The sergeant blamed neither his people nor neighbours for that interethnic conflict.


Extract from Hitchhiking in the Caucasus